In 1998, at the time of Velvet Goldmine‘s theatrical release, it was met with critical confusion and a lackluster box office performance, despite the fact that it is a phenomenal film both visually and structurally. Or because of it.
Much of its failure to connect with critics or a larger audience may have been the fault of the way it was presented and promoted by Miramax, and certainly, some of its confusingly cold reception could have come from its open portrayal of very fluid sexualities. Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe, I’m Not There tells his fantastical tale of glam rock without skimping on the genre’s gender-bending image or the real sexual identities and impulses behind that image. Perhaps it was a bit too much for the mainstream at the time to have so much sensuality, sexuality and romantic longing in a musical fairy tale? Particularly considering that’s not what the film is actually about.
Velvet Goldmine isn’t just a story of glam rock in the early ’70s. It’s a story about the places where dreams and memories overlap, where time is immaterial and images and impressions are everything. Where bright colors, big sounds, brash personalities and beautiful people are a means to escape a dark and dreary daily existence, as they encourage us to give up our guilt and live our lives like we wish they were.
Sure there’s the central narrative, set in a gray, oppressive 1984, that has journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) assigned a “Where Are They Now” piece on glam rocker Brian Slade (a not-at-all-veiled reference to David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane years, as embodied by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who ten years earlier staged his own murder in order to kill off his superstar alter-ego “Maxwell Demon”. In a nod to Citizen Kane, Stuart’s investigations lead to flashbacks, which incorporate the lives and careers of Slade, his wife Mandy (Toni Collette, in a brilliant homage to Angie Bowie) and Curt Wild (an electrifying Ewan McGregor channeling Iggy Pop with bits of Lou Reed and maybe Marc Bolan); the media myths that grew up around these characters (courtesy of a fabulous turn by Eddie Izzard as Slade’s second manager); the mystical origins of glam with Oscar Wilde and the mysterious and unsung figure of Jack Fairy (a little Jobriath, mixed with a bit more Bolan and some Roxy Music-era Eno); as well as young Arthur’s memories of his own life at the time when these events occurred.
However, there are also other narratives and themes interwoven throughout the film. For example, not all of Arthur Stuart’s recollections are recollections at all. Nor are all of Brian Slade’s experiences actual in a factual sense. When Stuart interviews a bitter, washed up Mandy Slade, she tells him “…how essential dreaming is to the character of the rock star.” This is a clue, a cue, to take all of these images for what they truly are: Fantasies. Heightened—and highly personal—perceptions. Wishes. Dreams.
Velvet Goldmine doesn’t contain a wealth of extra material, unfortunately. An informative commentary with Haynes and producer Christine Vachon, and the theatrical trailer are all that is included. Still the Blu-ray’s 5.1 DTS-HD Audio gives the film’s music, which is almost a character itself, the attention it deserves. Everything is as crisp, clean and emotionally powerful as it needs to be to complement the story. But the true treasure of this Blu-ray release is its visual presentation, the colors are richer and the glitter shines brighter, making the film and its stars all the more stunning.